Wednesday, October 25, 2006

more from Xi'an

Last week I talked about Xi’an as the center of the first unified Chinese dynasty about two and a half centuries ago. After the fall of the Qin dynasty, China sustained periods of warring states followed by repeated attempts to establish unifying dynasties. China also has a history of invasions from the north by Mongols who periodically ruled the Yellow River basin. The Great Wall was constructed over the course of several dynasties in a futile effort to block these northern invaders.

One of the more successful Mongol rulers was Kublai Khan who ruled Mongolia and the Yellow River basin of China in the latter half of the thirteenth century. In 1269 the Italian explorer Marco Polo returned from a commercial trip to China with letters from the Khan to the Pope asking that western intellectuals be sent to his court to teach them about the West. The return trip of Marco Polo, which lasted almost twenty five years, is described in his famous book, Travels, reportedly dictated by Polo from a prison cell. While there is substantial debate about the veracity of Polo’s book, there is little question that the reported adventures popularized in the West what was known as the Silk Road—one of the greatest commercial routes in world history.

Initially established in the Dark Ages, the Silk Road created overland commercial ties between Europe and China centuries before maritime contacts were established. The Road, which stretches from the Mediterranean to China, passes through what is today Turkey or Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan to the famous Khyber Pass over the Himalayans. The Khyber Pass lies between modern Afghanistan and Pakistan and continues to be a major commercial route for smugglers of cocaine, terrorists, and anything else of value. From Pakistan the Road leads into Tibet, across the Kobi desert, and into the Yellow River basin. There, Xi’an was the major terminal and trading center of this commercial route.

Trade on the Silk Road brought Europe scarce and exotic goods including silk, jade, pepper and other spices, and eastern technology such as the manufacture of gunpowder. It is curious that the Chinese invention of moveable type and the printing press never made it back to the West—not terribly important I guess. While goods flowed freely on the backs of numerous camel caravans, an equally important flow of people, their cultures, and their religions passed from region to region. As one would expect, the rise of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries was carried along the Silk Road into China.

As a consequence of this early commercial contact, Xi’an today has a large Muslim population descended from the early merchants. They speak Chinese, but still cling to the very open practice of Islam. They are racially distinct and many use traditional dress. Today, many of these descendants are active merchants in Xi’an and throughout China—particularly in the western provinces.

In the center of Xi’an, not far from the Bell Tower, is the ancient, central Mosque. It is a beautiful and serene place that actively serves the spiritual needs of the local population. Around the Mosque for blocks in any direction is a traditional Arab market or bazaar with narrow alleys, crowded shops, and every variety of exotic food imaginable. Particularly popular are sweets (candies and pastries), and dried fruits (dates, nuts) that in an earlier time came over thousands of miles by camel caravan from unknown western lands.

The Mosque and the Muslim quarter are of interest to both foreign tourists and local Chinese tourists. There were lines of Chinese outside of one shop waiting to buy a popular fried pastry prepared in an open air shop by Muslims in typical costume (photo). As we walked around, we passed one section of the market that seemed to be the liver section. We must have passed at least twenty shops, each of which had ten to twenty beef livers stacked up, uncooled in the front of the stores. They must have been smoked or preserved in some other fashion. I have no idea where all of that liver ends up in the food chain (and I hope I never find out).

The palpable feel of the historic Silk Road in the Arab quarter of Xi’an was fascinating. I almost expected Marco Polo or Kubli Kahn to step out around the next little alleyway and offer to exchange some European industrial good for silk or spices. After all, that was just yesterday in Chinese time—only several hundred years before Columbus bumped into a land mass that prohibited him from reaching the East Indies as he searched for an alternative to the Silk Road.

Back home in Beibei we found that little had changed. Our favorite noodle restaurant is still in business. It is operated by a very nice Muslim family. The wall decorations include a large picture of the Grand Mosque during the Hajj. Mom and Dad run the place and their children work as servers in between classes at the University. Their daughter is studying Food Science and one son is in Engineering. They serve no pork, but just about everything else. They, and some other Muslim merchants in town, remind us how far west we really are here in Beibei and how quickly we can step back in time.


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